Enculturation, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 2001

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The Found Photograph and the Limits of Meaning

The photograph is in one sense a popular extension of the portrait, for recognition and for record. But in a period of great mobility, with new separations of family and with internal and external migrations, it became more centrally necessary as a form of maintaining, over distance and through time, certain personal connections.

—Raymond Williams, "The Technology and the Society" (44)

My grandmother, until her death in 2001 at the age of 98, maintained a collection of photographs linking her to a time, a place, and a people: her family in Romania before the tuberculosis epidemic, before moving to Canada in the 1930s, before the Holocaust. The photographs said to her, "This is who I was, this is where I lived, these people were my family."

Despite displacement and poverty, my grandmother hung on to her photographs, but countless others lose their photographs with the passage of years and the disruptions of history. What happens when these lost photographs are found by a stranger?

The goal of this essay is to explore the challenges posed to our sense-making apparatus by three stages in the life of found photographs: their original context in the family photo album, their loss and discovery, and their recontextualization in the museum exhibit. It is based on a personal story that began over ten years ago.

In the late 1980s I lived in Minneapolis, where I walked my dog three times a day. During these walks, I found photographs on the street, thousands of them: studio portraits, industrial photographs, art students' photographs, medical photographs, and press photographs. I also found a large number of unclassifiable pictures, in which no social, aesthetic, or utilitarian principle dominates.

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